The Unexpectedly Delightful Origins of 15 Common Words

The etymological origins of the word 'daisy' are truly delightful.
The etymological origins of the word 'daisy' are truly delightful. / Elizabeth Fernandez/Moment/Getty Images

Even some of the most mundane words can have delightful back stories.

1. School

School is derived from the Greek word skhola, which meant leisure or spare time. What a luxury it was to just hang around and learn!

2. Companion

Companion comes from the Latin prefix com- and panis, meaning “together” and “bread.” A companion is someone you share bread with.

3. Window

Open windows looking out on trees and mountains
Windows are kind of eye-like. / Charles Gullung/The Image Bank/Getty Images

From Old Norse vindauga for “wind eye.” It won out over other old words meaning “eye hole” and “eye door.”

4. Squirrel

Squirrel originally comes from the Greek skia oura, or “shade tail.” The big, fluffy tail of a squirrel makes a nice parasol.

5. Muscle

hands clasped for arm wrestling
One of these arms has more little mice than the other. / PM Images/Stone/Getty Images

From Latin musculus for “little mouse,” perhaps because a rippling muscle can sometimes look like a little mouse running around under the skin.

6. Eavesdrop

Eavesdrop is derived from the Old English term for the line around a house where rain would drip down from the roof. It came to represent the activity of standing under the eaves in order to spy on what the neighbors were up to.

7. Wheedle

According to Merriam-Webster, no one is completely sure how wheedle entered the English language, though it seems to have done so by the 1600s. One theory is that it derives from the German wedeln, or “wag the tail,” and was picked up by English soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War.

8. Dandelion

A Dandelion in a field
A dandelion. / SOPA Images/GettyImages

Dandelion comes from the French phrase dent de lion, “tooth of the lion,” for the jagged outline of the leaves. The plant goes by other names as well, including tell-time and piss-a-bed.

9. Curfew

From French couvre feu for “cover fire.” In medieval Europe, there were fire safety regulations under which a bell would ring in the evening when it was time to extinguish fires and go to sleep; the word curfew had arrived at its current meaning by the 19th century.

10. Astronaut

First Spacewalk by US Astronaut
An astronaut during a spacewalk. / Corbis/GettyImages

The word astronaut is formed from the Greek roots for star (astro-) and sailor (nautes), and first popped up in 1928.

11. Flair

Flair comes from the Latin flagrare, which is an altered form of fragare, “to smell” (related to “fragrant”). A flair for something is a bit of extra perceptiveness, an ability to catch the scent; the Online Etymology Dictionary traces this meaning to American English in the 1920s.

12. Howdy

A friendly shortening of the more formal “how do ye?” or “how do you?”

13. Cushy

Cushy comes from the Hindi khush for “pleasant” or “happy.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary. the word cushie has an earlier, not-so-nice meaning in Scottish: “soft, flabby.”

14. Explain

From the Latin explanare for “smooth out, flatten, or make planar.” A good explanation will make the rough, pointy bits easier to understand.

15. Daisy

Daisy Flower, England
A daisy. / Tim Graham/GettyImages

The word daisy is derived from the Old English daeges eage, meaning “day’s eye.” A daisy opens with the day and closes at night.

A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2022. We have also corrected an error about how the dandelion came by its name: It was named for the shape of its leaves, not its petals.